The Violent Origins of Political Societies

Niccolò Machiavelli’s profound insights about the violent origins of political societies help us understand the world today

Essay by David Polansky in Aeon: Niccolò Machiavelli is better known for his hard-headed political advice – it was he who wrote ‘it is better to be feared than loved’ – but he was also preoccupied with the role of violence in establishing (and re-establishing) political societies. Few thinkers have dealt so thoroughly and so troublingly with the theme of political origins as Machiavelli, leading the French philosopher Louis Althusser to call Machiavelli the ‘theorist of beginnings’. For Machiavelli, origins are chiefly of interest for two reasons: first, they reveal essential truths about the impermanence of political life that are otherwise obscured by ordinary politics; and, second, their violent conditions are in principle replicable always and everywhere.

Machiavelli’s perspective is moreover useful to us – because of the way he stands outside of our liberal tradition. Every society in history has had its origin stories, but the question of beginnings poses particular challenges for those of us living in the kinds of modern states that first began to take shape in the 17th century. For their legitimacy rests upon their deliberative and representative character. Nearly all existing states – even non-democratic ones – have some claim to represent a given people. Representative government is one of the ways that we assure ourselves that political power isn’t mere domination, and its rules and processes are intended to preserve the rights of the people who establish them. Consequently, we locate the origins of political society with that moment of establishment. The great liberal philosopher John Locke, for example, insists in the Second Treatise of Government (1689) that ‘the beginning of politic society depends upon the consent of the individuals, to join into, and make one society; who, when they are thus incorporated, might set up what form of government they thought fit.’

However, what about the right of any given people to establish political orders in the first place? And if some do claim to establish a new political order, who gets to decide which individuals are included among ‘the people’ and which are not? Who decides what territory is rightfully theirs for establishing government? And how did it happen in the first place?

Illustration by Sadia Tariq

hese are questions that modern liberalism is largely unable to face. John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971), perhaps the most influential work of political theory in the past 50 years, admits that his considerations of justice simply assume the existence of a stable and self-contained national community. Earlier, Thomas Hobbes and, later, Immanuel Kant had faced this question more squarely, but both warned against enquiring about the origins of our societies at all, for, as Hobbes wrote in 1651, ‘there is scarce a commonwealth in the world, whose beginnings can in conscience be justified.’

It is not that the liberal political tradition (which is the tradition of most of the world’s developed countries) is simply unaware of political origins; but it deals with them in a deliberate and abstract way that is removed from the messy historical realities behind the formation of states and nations. The opening words of the ‘Federalist’ essay, written by Alexander Hamilton in defence of the nascent US Constitution, posed the question two and a half centuries ago:

whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

The US founders, in other words, consciously sought to create a wholly new society based upon just principles rather than the contingent events that gave rise to past governments, thus providing a model for future liberal constitutions. But accident and force are simply mainstays of history. And, as it happens, they are also Machiavelli’s bread and butter (or bread and olive oil).

Two of Machiavelli’s major political works, both published posthumously in 1531-32 – the Discourses on Livy, his magisterial treatment of the ancient Roman republic, and his Florentine Histories – open with discussions of the sources of populations themselves. Such questions concerning the origins of populations remain pressing even today, as indicated by the trendiness of the concept of ‘indigeneity’ – that is, the attempt to identify an authentically original people with a title to the land that precedes all others – which has been applied to places as disparate as Canada, Palestine, Finland and Taiwan. One sees a similar impulse behind certain Right-wing nationalist claims, like Jean-Marie Le Pen’s insistence that the true French nation traces back to the 5th-century coronation of Clovis I. We want an unambiguous point of origin to which a legitimate claim to territory might be fixed. Machiavelli, however, denies us such a stable point.

All natives were once foreign, their situation but the end result of some prior (possibly forgotten) conquest

More here.

David Polansky is a research fellow with the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. His writing has appeared in Quillette, New Criterion and The Review of Politics, among others. He lives in Toronto, Canada.